Al-Azhar keeps up campaign against Charlie Hebdo

Al-Azhar has criticized French authorities' silence over the controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad recently republished by satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

al-monitor French President Emmanuel Macron observes a minute of silence in front of the plaque commemorating late police officer Ahmed Merabet to mark the third anniversary of the attack, in Paris, on Jan. 7, 2018. Two French jihadists who had sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda killed 11 people at Charlie Hebdo's offices in 2015 over the staunchly atheist magazine's satirical coverage of Islam and Prophet Mohammed.  Photo by CHRISTOPHE ENA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images.

Topics covered

terrorism, extremism, caricature, prophet muhammad, france, charlie hebdo, muslim brotherhood, al-azhar

Sep 21, 2020

CAIRO — It seems that the repercussions of the angry Islamic reactions to derogatory cartoons of Prophet Muhammad recently republished by French magazine Charlie Hebdo are far from over. 

Egypt's El-Nabaa newspaper published Sept. 13 a report released by the Foreign Missions' Department under Al-Azhar Sheikhdom stating that several European countries have refused a request from the department to open Al-Azhar offices on their territories to welcome more Al-Azhar missionaries in those countries.

According to the report, the Foreign Missions’ Department linked the rejection of the request to the media campaign that Al-Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb launched against Charlie Hebdo because of the republication of several caricatures deemed offensive to Prophet Muhammad. 

Tayeb had issued a statement released in Arabic, English and French Sept. 3, stating that insulting the prophet is a breakdown of all humanitarian and civilized values.

Several regional newspapers and observers believe Tayeb’s statement openly criticized French President Emmanuel Macron, as it said “justifying such insult under the pretext of protecting freedom of expression is a misunderstanding of the difference between the human right to freedom and the crime against humanity under the plea of protecting freedom.”

In a press conference Sept. 1, Macron announced that he will not forbid or condemn the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad and justified that by saying France is a state that “enjoys freedom of expression and opinion and freedom of the press. It is not the president’s business at all to judge the editorial choices of a journalist or newsroom.”

The satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine on Sept. 2 began republishing the controversial caricatures of Prophet Muhammad with the beginning of the trial of al-Qaeda-affiliated members who were involved in attacking the newspaper premises in 2015, killing 12 people and injuring 11.

A faculty member at Al-Azhar University told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars and Tayeb did not ask Egyptian authorities to make any official response to the French authorities’ silence regarding the drawings under the pretext of defending freedom of expression and opinion, or on the stubbornness of some European societies vis-a-vis the establishment of offices for Al-Azhar administration for missions in their countries.

However, the source noted that few Al-Azhar faculty members wished Egyptian authorities had issued a statement to respond to French authorities, especially regarding the drawings.

The faculty member said official stances of Arab governments play a key role in alleviating the attack on Islamic sanctities and symbols and toning down hate speech against Muslims. 

Egypt and Saudi Arabia recalled their ambassadors to Denmark in 2006 and 2008 and voiced their official objections to several controversial drawings of the prophet published in 2006 and republished in 2008 in the Danish Jyllands-Posten daily newspaper. The drawings were halted in Denmark in 2008 and have not recurred in 12 years.

Although the source wished an Egyptian or Arab stance were issued against the French drawings and against French silence, the source said faculty members at Al-Azhar understand Egyptian authorities' strategy in dealing with the crises calmly and solving them through negotiations and understandings and away from the language of condemnation “which might add insult to injury.”

The source added, “We trust that the wise administration of President [Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi will contribute to resolving the crisis of establishing Al-Azhar offices in Europe, because Egyptian authorities believe that Al-Azhar is among Egypt’s key soft power tools and a means to fighting terrorism and extremism.”

Akram Azab, a London-based opposition journalist and former expert on Al-Azhar affairs at Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, told Al-Monitor, “The Egyptian authorities might be putting pressure on Al-Azhar to halt the campaign against Charlie Hebdo and the French authorities, especially after the resonance of the social media campaign dubbed ‘Everyone but the Messenger of God.’ The interests and ties between France and Egypt are much stronger than those between Egypt and Denmark, especially following the alliance between Egypt and France against Turkey’s military intervention in Libya.”

Social media activists reacted to Al-Azhar’s Sept. 3 statement with the Arabic hashtag that translates into “Everyone but the Messenger of God.” The hashtag became the most trending on Sept. 3-4.

Azab added that Al-Azhar’s campaign against Charlie Hebdo and French authorities might further complicate relations between Al-Azhar and Sisi’s regime, especially with the tensions between them given Sisi’s call on Al-Azhar to modernize its religious discourse, and his call to annul verbal divorce and limit issuing fatwas to the Egyptian Dar al-Ifta rather than Al-Azhar. Several opposition newspapers supported by the Muslim Brotherhood tackled these disputes, while Al-Azhar denied them on several occasions.”

Al-Monitor tried to contact Saleh Abbas, Al-Azhar’s current undersecretary, to comment on the matter, but he did not answer his phone. And Al-Monitor's source at Al-Azhar stressed that his institute hasn't been under any pressure from the presidency to stop its campaign against Charlie Hebdo cartoons.

Abdul Qader Atta, a retired professor of political science at Assiut University, ruled out the possibility of a potential dispute over Al-Azhar’s campaign against Charlie Hebdo and French authorities between France and Egypt on the one hand and the Egyptian regime and Al-Azhar on the other hand. However, he indicated that this might expedite a dialogue between politicians in Egypt and France, and perhaps Europe as a whole, “about curbing the hate speech against Muslims, their sanctities and symbols, because it is a main cause of terrorism and extremism.”

He argued that French authorities have double standards in their support for freedom of expression and opinion. Muslim minorities in Europe might feel persecuted and react violently. He said, “France pursues anyone who denies the Holocaust, and the French president chided a French journalist for exposing details of his meeting with Hezbollah leaders during his visit to Beirut. Yet French authorities did not see these pursuits or scolding of the journalist as behavior against free speech and expression.”

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